Small, private colleges across the state seem to be facing declining admission and retention numbers over recent years, and Buena Vista University (BVU) is no exception to the problem. However, despite a dip in class sizes, the future may be brighter than one thinks. BVU Executive Director of Admissions Nick Boone is cautiously optimistic that incoming class sizes will be on the rise as compared to recent years.
Over the last few years, incoming freshmen class sizes have hovered consistently around 200. While Boone says it is too early to tell for sure, current projections expect new class sizes above previous records; the goal is 250 students for next year’s incoming class.
Mike Walker, assistant dean of students and director of retention & student support, says that his role is to help enhance the student experience so that they do want to stay. Retention as a statistic refers to the percentage of students that come to a university and then return for the next year; the ultimate goal for any institution is to keep that number as close to one hundred percent as possible.
“In terms of the challenges that we face in retention, there’s a couple reasons that come up in our exit interviews that I would say are the most frequent reasons for people leaving,” said Walker. “One of those is financial considerations, and the other one is distance from home. People typically will give one, if not both, of those things as their primary reasons for exiting the university.”
Despite these potential setbacks, BVU is committed to creating a positive experience for its students and wants to help people see the benefits of being here.
A BVU graduate himself, Boone strives to provide others with the same positive experience that he had.
“This was a life changing experience for me. I think BV has a lot to offer, but you have to experience it for yourself. So, making sure that we’re able to get students on campus to kind of get the feel for what BV is, is extremely important.”
While it will take time to achieve these goals, comparing current trends in deposit rates and numbers of dispatched financial aid award letters to previous years indicates a positive change. Overall, fall to spring retention of first-year Storm Lake students is up seven percent, and retention of all Storm Lake students is up two percent. The Office of Student Success has implemented a number of great programs that are showing positive signs in lifting retention rates this year as compared to last year.
Students who are thinking about leaving are also encouraged to have a conversation with Mike Walker to address any concerns.
“I help get them connected with the financial aid office to see if there’s any additional funding available for them,” said Walker. “Sometimes they’re unaware of certain scholarships that may be available or that there are other loans they can take out to ease some of the financial burden.”
Additionally, while it is impossible to move a student’s home, one thing that has been positive for students dealing with homesickness is a program called “Home Away From Home.” Students joining the program have the opportunity to connect with a family here in town. Students come to campus accustomed to their family routine back home, but because of distance, they’re not able to experience that. This program hopes to meet some of those needs.
“We can run algorithms and projections of what our retention rates are going to be, and this year’s class is actually projected to be almost identical to last year’s. And we knew that if we didn’t do anything different, we’d end up in a very similar situation. So that’s why the Home Away From Home program was developed,” said Boone.
Academic liaisons have also been reintroduced for each of the schools in order to connect students to professors, as well as help students that may be struggling academically, or otherwise to help provide additional support. And we’ve seen huge impacts of those programs already.
“It’s been exciting to see some positive changes, but you know, the year is still going on and we won’t know final numbers until registration is complete for the fall. But there are things that we’re optimistic about because we were able to identify some of the concerns and help meet some of those needs for our students,” shares Walker.
Walker added to this optimism, stating that BVU is here for students and wants to help them learn and grow, and if students leave, that is an opportunity missed to influence them. Boone is also cautiously optimistic that they are on a good track right now. The ultimate goal is to hopefully make BVU a place where students feel comfortable and want to come back.
“I think that that would be the Cinderella story for us as being able to get new students from a lot of different cultures and backgrounds and being able to retain them. We want to make sure that everybody’s enjoying every piece of their BVU experience—whether that is in the classroom, their social network, or athletically—that they’re finding success and continuing to grow,” said Boone. “That’s what we’re here to do: to support our students so that they can live that full, rich life that they want. That would be ultimately the fairy tale.”